What is Tarot? A Quick Introduction


Before we begin…

If you are interested in tarot and have no idea what tarot is or what it can be used for, you’re at the right place! This post will address some of the misconceptions of tarot, and provide you with a basic understanding of tarot: what it is, the structure of a 78-card tarot deck, and what it can be used for.

Originally, this was meant to be the first part of the Tarot Writing Series, but it kind of got out of hand and became a creature of its own.If you’re interested in finding out more about the Tarot Writing series and how use tarot as a tool for writing and the creative process of storytelling, please check out The Tarot Writing Series: Introduction [Part One] and Tarot Writing Series: Introduction [Part Two].

The misconceptions surrounding tarot

There is a lot of misconceptions surrounding tarot–the stereotypical image being a woman (usually dressed like a gypsy, or something of that sort) sitting you down, shuffling a deck of worn-out cards while hidden contraptions produce a veil of mist and smoke, and then solemnly informing you that there is a curse in your family line and she will gladly remove the curse for a “small” fee. Tarot is also, oftentimes, associated with unrealistic mumbo-jumbo or bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, some kind of trickery that serves no substantial purpose other than embarrassing itself as a flurry of trickery.

That is, of course, far from the truth.

What is tarot used for? 

Tarot is a form of cartomancy that utilizes universal symbolism and archetypes to capture the psychological journey and experience of humankind. It’s meant to be reflective and explorative. Many people use it for fortunetelling–to divine your future, your past lives, how your ex currently feels about you, and all that jazz– but a deck of tarot cards can offer you so much more. I’m going to quote my favourite tarot reader, Kelly-Ann Maddox–she said, pick up a deck of tarot cards, and “go for a swim in your soul”.

Tarot is meant to reveal to you parts of your psyche that you are not aware of yet. It gives you that alternative perspective to stimulate personal growth and self-knowing. This is why a deck of tarot cards can promote self-awareness, empowerment and healing. It is not some mumbo-jumbo at all! When used correctly and with the right attitude, the things that tarot is able to reveal to you on this journey called life are literally endless. It is a very intricate system that encapsulates the human experience, and because of the way it taps into our subconscious and illuminates, it is a very spiritual tool. It is illuminating because of its poignancy and honesty in capturing our current state of mind and representing who we are at the time of a reading.

In short, tarot is a mirror. It shows us who we truly are, without fail.

What is tarot?

Tarot, like mentioned before, is a form of cartomancy–which is a system of divination involving cards. A deck of tarot cards consists of 78 cards, with 22 Major Arcana (greater secrets) cards and 56 Minor Arcana (lesser secrets) cards. The Minor Arcana is further divided into 4 suits, with each suit containing 14 cards. The four suits–Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles–are then divided into two groups of cards: the Court Cards and then Numbered Cards.

The structure of tarot looks something like this:

  • 22 Major Arcana Cards (From 0-The Fool to 21-The World)
  • 56 Minor Arcana Cards
    • The Suit of Wands (Numbered Cards + Court Cards)
    • The Suit of Swords (Numbered Cards + Court Cards)
    • The Suit of Cups (Numbered Cards + Court Cards)
    • The Suit of Pentacles (Numbered Cards + Court Cards)


The Major Arcana

The Major Arcana, the “greater secrets”, depicts the grand, overarching spiritual journey that we go through, or the “major events” that occur in a person’s life.  These events are usually moments of epiphany or realization, personal transformations and paradigm shifts. The Major Arcana always begins with The Fool, the number zero card that symbolizes birth, beginnings, and the adventurous spirit. Being the number zero card, The Fool is often said to be the figure or character journeying through the rest of the Major Arcana cards, making his way through education (The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant), socialization (The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength), personal transformations (Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower) and individuation (Judgement, The World). This journey is called “The Fool’s Journey”, and it is a great way to understand the grand narrative of the Major Arcana and also learn the individual definitions of each card because it essentially follows The Fool and the “stops” he makes during his journey towards self-realization and individuation–the “stops” being the individual cards in the Major Arcana. Of course, this is not the only way to perceive or organize the Major Arcana, but it is a great place to start.

The Minor Arcana

On the other hand, the Minor Arcana, the “lesser secrets”, capture the mundane, everyday events pertaining to things like passionate and creative pursuits, relationships, individual expressions, and material accumulation, etc. The four suits of the Minor Arcana (Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles) each pertain to a specific element (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth respectively) and is related to various aspects of daily life:

  • Wands (fire) is associated with passion, intention and the will to manifest one’s reality.
  • Swords (air) is associated with the mind, rationality and logic.
  • Cups (water) is associated with emotions, relationships and intuition.
  • Pentacles (earth) is associated with nature, the physical realm, home and community.


The four elements, combined with each card’s numerology significance, also produce different meanings and contexts. For example, the number 2 is representative of duality. Combined with Swords (the element of air), the Two of Swords becomes a card symbolizing the indecision, dilemma, and hesitation.

The Court Cards

The Minor Arcana also consists of Court Cards, which are the Pages, Knights, Queens and Kings. The four courts each embody a personality that is typical of their “age” and status. The Pages are youngsters or students still learning and perfecting their craft; they are idealistic but often lacking action and drive. The Knights are the “questing youngsters”, as I like to call them. They live for the experience and are actively manifesting their desires and actively questing after a goal. The Queens are figures of nurture and care, but also of authority and diplomacy. Her authority is enforced in a more subtle, social and supportive way–very different from the Kings, who represent full mastery and authority of their elements. You can say that the Queens are like mothers who take care of you and want the best for you–while the Kings are like fathers who serve as figures of authority and they exert their authority through ruling.


Again, the courts are combined with their elemental attributes and thus producing different personalities and characters. If you combine the questing and adventure of the Knights and the emotional, social attribute of the Cups (element of water), you get the romantic, idealistic Knight of Cups, who embark on quest in search for love and experiences to fulfill his heart, who perceives and understands his world by feeling.

To close…

In this post, we’ve looked at some basic aspects of a tarot deck, its structure, as well as its uses. I hope this post has been informative to you. Of course, there are so much more to tarot than just one single blog post! There are endless techniques in approaching and reading tarot. You can read a tarot card singularly on its own, or you can read tarot in pairs, or even in spreads (multiple card formations). Tarot can be used for self-exploration and communication, and can be used for writing and storytelling. It also has many other uses, such as meditation and therapy.

I am very happy to be writing about tarot and sharing something that I hold dear to my heart with you. If you are just starting to love tarot or are already a tarot reader like I am, stay tuned for more tarot goodness! 🙂


Tarot never gets old, as I like to say. 😉

More Resources

If you are interested in reading more about viewing tarot cards through the lens of storytelling as well as cultivating an intuitive tarot practice, check out my e-book: Tarot Beginnings: An Introduction to the Story and Study of Tarot. 

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